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Why Muhammad(s) matters?

By: Omid Safi

It has become common place to acknowledge that we live in an interconnected world. Yet it is not just goods, people and ideas that now flow freely across the world; it is also the religious insights, sensitivities, and prejudices of our fellow human beings that we increasingly encounter. This is particularly relevant to the case of Muhammad(s), probably the least known and most misunderstood of all the founders of the major world religions.

The geopolitical reality of our world means that many Muslim-majority countries dominate international news, and this has resulted in a hitherto unseen interest in Islam among many people. The interest is also more personal for many: in the United States alone, some six million Americans profess to follow the Islamic faith, about the same number as there are American Jews or American Orthodox Christians. Perhaps a similar number of Americans now have Muslims as members of their families. Worldwide there are some 1.3 billion Muslims. Whether some of us [Muslims] think of ourselves primarily as citizens of a country first or citizens of a shared planet, it is simply part of being an educated citizen to have accurate knowledge about the faith of Islam, and Muhammad(s) stands at the centre of this faith. There is no way of being familiar with Islam without taking a long, hard, and close look at the figure who is so beloved by Muslims and yet often equally vilified by many non-Muslims.

For some Christians, however, the idea of God having reached out to humanity after Christ remains an enigma. Muhammad(s) remains for these Christians a theological challenge. In lashing out against Muhammad(s), they seek to affirm the special relationship they believe God has established with humanity through Christ. Yet this vehemence has prevented them from being able to see Muhammad(s) in the light of history and faith and from understanding Islam on its own merits.

The polemics against Muhammad(s) today may be unoriginal, but they have in fact changed since the days of medieval theological polemics. The modern reality is both more complicated and more urgent. The medieval polemicists against Muhammad(s) might be forgiven for having lacked reliable scholarly resources or for having had no personal contact with Muslims who might have persuaded them that Muslims are in fact human beings. Today's polemicists cannot claim any such ignorance.

On the one hand, one can turn with great confidence to an abundance of books, internet resources, experts, and documentaries for information about various aspects of Islamic teachings, history, and society. Yet ironically, the same proliferation of media has resulted in a dilution of the standards of scholarship. It can sometimes be hard for the untrained eye to detect which books were written by scholars trained in the field of Islamic studies and which were composed by prejudiced bigots who have found a new victim and an additional target for their hatred. Prejudice and hate are fluid, ever seeking new victims. In days past, Jews a far older tradition, that of the "imitation of God". In the Jewish tradition, there had been "You shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). In the Christian tradition, there had been "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). At times this imitation of divine manners also became embodied in representatives who walked the Earth, in the following of Christ, and in the Catholic tradition the saints. The approach of seeking to embody the loftiest ethics by imitating the most luminous souls is not unique to Christianity. For more than a millennia before WWJD showed up on bracelets, billions of human beings participated in a similar ethical and legal self-questioning: WWMD-WHAT WOULD MUHAMMAD DO? "Say; if you love God, follow me, and God will love you." (Qur'an 3:31)

Imagine a civilisation where aspiring to Muhammadi ethics is considered the noblest ethical norm. Imagine intellectual traditions charged with the task of tracing a lofty pattern of behaviour - the ideal model of human conduct - all the way back to Muhammad(s). This community and its intellectual traditions have in fact characterised Islamic civilisation as it has sought to embody the Sunna, 'the path' of the Prophet of Islam. To this day, the language of "the path" has a life-giving and immediate resonance for Muslims. In fact, a text devoted to celebrating the memory of the Prophet in the twelfth century makes this exact analogy. Entitled "The Healing" (al-shifa'), this volume states that the celebrated phrase "Straight Path" (al-sirat al-mustaqim) that shows up in the opening chapter of the Qur'an is none other than Muhammad(s) himself. In other words, for the author of al-shifa', when Muslims beseech God to "guide us to and keep us on the Straight Path," they are asking to be guided to Muhammad(s). Muhammad(s) is the cool oasis of faith and serenity on the journey back to the Divine Beloved. This is the goal of the community of Muhammad(s) to be led to Muhammad(s) and from Muhammad(s) to God.

One saying of Muhammad(s), much beloved by Muslims, is that he was sent to bring completion to the "nobility of manners". The word for "nobility" (makarim) in Islamic discourse has to do with generosity, as well as remaining ever-mindful of God. In other words, the goal for this model of ethics is to connect one's dealings with other human beings with the existential awareness that we are, at all moments, in the very Presence of God. How would we act if at all times we were mindful of being with God? This is the model of spiritual excellence and beauty (ihsan) embodied by Muhammad(s) that is referred to in the Qur'an as a "lovely example" (uswatun hasana): "You have indeed in the Messenger of God a Lovely Example, for anyone whose hope is in God and the Last Day, and who engages in the frequent remembrance of God". (Qur'an 33:21)

Here is one of the keys for understanding the Muslims' connections to the Prophet. Muhammad(s) does not merely drop the Qur'an at the front door of humanity. He lives the Qur'an, he embodies the Qur'an, and as his wife Aisha said, his nature is the Qur'an. Muslims do not connect to Muhammad(s) simply to learn disembodied hadith statements; they look to him to embody the very meaning of the connection with God. This is why for Muslims the key spiritual and intellectual guide to answering every legal and ethical dilemma has always been to ask: 'what would Muhammad(s) do'?

As Muslims expanded from being the citizens of a small Arab community centred on Muhammad(s) to a cosmopolitan community living on every continent, they were forced to deal with new cultures, challenging situations, fresh dilemmas, and exciting opportunities. The question of "what would Muhammad(s) do?" was never intended to be a fossilised and fully codified system, but rather a way of preparing the community of Muhammad(s) to live in a global and perpetually changing world. It is this creative reimagining of what Muhammad(s) would do that has in part allowed Islam to expand and become indigenous to so many cultural contexts.

Omid Safi is Professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina and author of "Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters" published by HarperCollins (Nov 2010)

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, Vol. 1 No. 2 | December 2012. It has been republished here with permission.